Out from the Shadows

Article excerpt

Byline: Sophie Grove

In London, Charles Saatchi unveils bold and biting new works by Middle Eastern artists.

In Ramin Haerizadeh's photo montage "Men of Allah," bearded figures pout and lounge languidly among intricate Persian patterns. The series of sensuous, sexually ambiguous semi-nudes, created in secret in Tehran, is a bold critique of gender roles in Iranian society, representing what the artist has called "closet queens." In London, the cavorting, hairy limbs are considered risque. In a society with few civil liberties, and where homosexuality is vehemently denied, these rich, sumptuous images are rudely subversive.

Haerizadeh has plenty of competition for the mantle of most provocative work in "Unveiled: New Art From the Middle East," now on display at Charles Saatchi's London gallery (through May 9). Featuring 21 new artists from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Iran and the Palestinian territories, the show reveals a hidden art scene in Islamic capitals like Tehran, and a thriving community of young artists in the Middle Eastern diaspora. "It became very clear that some of the most exciting work being made in the world was being made by these artists," says Rebecca Wilson, the head of development for Saatchi, who has been collecting their works for years. The region's contemporary art market is still in the "very early stages," says Wilson, but has been gaining ground in the past few years as commercial interest intensifies and as cultural centers like Dubai host art shows.

With "Unveiled," Saatchi certainly lives up to his reputation as modern art's most audacious provocateur. While his previous collections have pioneered the introspective, self-indulgent work of enfants terrible like Tracy Emin, this show is fiercely political. The artists set their gaze on such issues as Islamism, occupation, war and women with a fresh and fearless approach. French-Algerian Kader Attia's installation "Ghost" is a congregation of female worshipers fashioned out of husks of tinfoil. The fragile figures are, on closer inspection, empty scepterlike vessels--a controversial comment on women's status in the mosque.

It's easy to understand why some of the artists go straight to the topical. Halim Al-Karim's work is informed by a three-year period during Saddam Hussein's regime when the artist hid in the desert, in a hole in the ground covered by a pile of rocks. A Bedouin woman brought him food and water. His mysterious black-and-white triptychs of distorted female faces draw on this traumatic time. Similarly, his use of oblique materials like silk to screen his subjects is a reference to his visits to Abu Ghraib Prison during Saddam's rule, when relatives and friends were interned behind glass as political prisoners. The artist, who left Iraq in 1991, has not given up on his homeland. "One day I will go back to Baghdad and work again" he says. …